“The line must be drawn HERE! This far, no farther! I…will make them PAY for what they’ve done!”
Captain Jean-Luc Picard ranting about the Borg
When producers started making the eighth Star Trek film, they knew it had to deliver big. The previous film was successful but received criticisms over its quality. So for Star Trek: First Contact they brought out the big guns in the form of the Borg, the most popular villains on the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). And it worked.
It opens with a close up shot of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) looking straight ahead. The camera pulls back to reveal he’s inside the nightmarish machinery of a Borg vessel. What’s worse is his transformation into one of them and losing his identity. The Borg are a cold, and nearly invincible cyborg race made up of assorted aliens that are forcibly converted using painful looking cybernetic implants. They seek the perfect union between machine and life and assimilating other races to achieve this objective.
Picard eventually wakes up from the nightmare, which was a flashback to his ordeal in the classic two-part episode “The Best Of Both Worlds”. He’s onboard his new ship, the Enterprise-E and receives news that the Borg have returned to Federation space. However, instead of being ordered to join an assembled armada to fight the Borg, he is to patrol the Romulan Neutral Zone with his ship.
He and his crew are visibly restless about their orders. Later as they carry them out, his first officer Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) complains about the orders, Picard tells him that Starfleet feels that his own experiences with being turned into a Borg will compromise his ability to fight them.
Just then he and the crew pick up transmissions from the fight. Things aren’t going well for the Starfleet armada, it’s losing badly to the Borg. Having heard enough, Picard decides to disobey orders and join the fight, with his crew behind him. The Enterprise-E then warps off at its highest speed to Earth.
The very next scene features a mammoth and imposing Borg cube that fills the screen, accompanied by a booming score, as it nears our planet. It’s slammed by weapons fire from Starfleet ships. Unlike “The Best Of Both Worlds” the ships are putting up a better fight, but are still losing. New and eye-catching Starfleet ships abound, one of them is the Defiant, the scrappy escort vessel seen in the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). Commanding the Defiant is the Klingon Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn), who in between films, joined DS9. His damaged ship is caught in a tractor beam from the cube.
The Enterprise-E suddenly joins the fray, rescues the Defiant and beams aboard its survivors. Moments later, Worf joins his old comrades at the bridge, completing the film reunion. Picard takes command of the fleet and orders a simultaneous barrage of weapons fire at specific spots on the cube.
In a spectacular display, the Starfleet ships fire a vicious volley at the Borg cube and destroy it. However, before it explodes, the cube releases a smaller, sphere-shaped vessel that rushes towards Earth.
The Enterprise-E is on its tail as a temporal vortex opens up in front of the Borg sphere that leaves behind an energy wake that washes over the Enterprise-E. After the sphere disappears into the vortex, the horrified crew of the starship see the Earth before them become Borgified. The planet’s colorful landmasses are transformed into one continuous field of metallic grey.
They deduce that the sphere traveled to Earth’s past and assimilated the planet. The ship’s android operations officer Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) theorizes that the wake protected them from being changed with the altered timeline. Before the vortex can close, Picard orders the Enterprise-E to go through it.
The sphere emerges from the vortex and begins attacking a small, rundown town in Montana. The Enterprise-E arrives a few minutes later and destroys the sphere. They learn they’re in the mid 21st century, April 4, 2063 to be exact, about ten years after World War III. Based on that information, Picard realizes that the Borg want to stop Zefram Cochrane, the human inventor of warp drive technology, from successfully testing Earth’s first warp drive ship, the Phoenix. Its flight on the next day will attract the attention of a passing Vulcan ship, which will then travel to Earth. The resulting peaceful first contact will eventually lead to the founding of the United Federation of Planets.
Fearing the worst, Picard with an Away Team beams down to the town, which actually has a missile complex. Even though most of the personnel in the complex are dead, Cochrane’s assistant and co-pilot Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard) is found alive but suffering from radiation poisoning. She’s taken back to the ship for treatment by Chief Medical Officer Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) while Picard looks for Cochrane. The Phoenix (actually a converted nuclear missile) is damaged but repairable.
Throughout the film, Picard was able to hear Borg voices in his head, a residual effect of his ordeal after being assimilated. He hears them again and returns to the ship with Data, while having Riker beam down to continue looking for Cochrane. Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (Levar Burton) also beams down with a team to repair the Phoenix and continue with the planned flight.
Back on the Enterprise-E, the bridge crew discover that they are losing control over several systems and cannot contact main engineering. It soon becomes apparent that there are Borg drones onboard the starship. The captain theorizes that before the sphere was destroyed several Borg must’ve beamed onboard undetected to assimilate the starship. Acting quickly, Picard orders Data to lock out the main computer and heads to main engineering with a security team. Picard’s plan is to puncture the warp core’s plasma coolant tanks, which will flood engineering and liquefy all organic matter, namely the Borg’s organic parts.
When they get near their destination, several Borg drones, many of whom are assimilated crewmembers, attack Picard’s detail. They’re forced to retreat but Data is captured.
During his retreat, Picard runs into Lily, who evacuated sickbay and separated from Crusher’s medical team after the Borg broke into the medical facility. Lily doesn’t know what is going on and orders Picard at phaser point to be taken back home. PIcard is able to convince her that she is on a ship from the future and takes her with him to a holodeck. They briefly hide there while a 1940s detective story simulation plays until two Borg enter the holodeck. Picard begins to exhibit his inner rage and transforms into a movie action hero while killing them with a holographic Tommy gun. Then he retrieves a neural processor from one of the corpses to learn the Borg’s plans.
One of them is to use the ship’s deflector to contact other Borg for reinforcements. This leads to one of the film’s most suspenseful moments: a dangerous battle with the enemy outside on the ship’s outer hull. They’re truly inhuman with their capability to function without spacesuits, while Picard, Worf and a redshirt named Hawk (Neal McDonough) donned sleek, white EV suits.
Back on Earth, the ship’s counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) finds Cochrane (James Cromwell) in a bar. Riker discovers them and is disappointed that a supposedly heroic historical figure is nothing more than a drunken lout. After the Borg attack, Cochrane would rather get drunk with Troi than tend to the Phoenix. Knowing they’re short on time, Riker tells Cochrane the truth about who they are. At first, Cochrane doesn’t believe him but is convinced after seeing the Enterprise-E through a telescope and observes “And you people, you’re all…astronauts on some kind of star trek.” He then agrees to continue with his planned test flight.
Cochrane is eventually overwhelmed by the knowledge of how consequential his actions will be for humanity. He just wanted to get rich not do anything heroic. Nevertheless, Riker is able to keep him on schedule for his historic flight.
Data wakes up in the Borg hive (formerly main engineering) and meets the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), the mind behind the cybernetic race. She looks like a something out of a Hellraiser film with her deathly pale and sweaty complexion. The Borg Queen is strangely exotic and surprisingly seductive. She understands Data’s quest for evolving past his programming and becoming human. The Borg leader activates his emotion chip and begins to have skin grafts placed onto Data so he can know what it feels like to be human and win him over. Her motive is to get him to reveal the main computer’s encryption key. Even though he is tempted, Data resists her efforts and attempts an escape but is re-captured and seduced by her.
The fight to take back the Enterprise-E is slowly being lost by its crew. Everyone but Picard sees that its hopeless. On the bridge, Worf suggests they self-destruct the ship. This only enrages Picard, who by now is becoming too obsessive with the Borg. Angrily, he orders everyone to continue fighting and storms off to his ready room. Lily is shocked by Picard’s obtuse behavior and confronts him in private. After a cathartic yelling match, Picard realizes that he is losing himself over what the Borg did to him years ago.
Picard goes back to the bridge and orders a shipwide evacuation. After entering a self-destruct order on the computer, he hears in his head a plea for help from his friend Data. As everyone else evacuates, Picard goes to engineering, determined to save his friend just as Cochrane readies the Phoenix for its monumental launch.
Star Trek: First Contact is an epic Star Trek story that also works as a sci-fi horror tale with the Borg shown at their most frightening since “The Best Of Both Worlds”. We see how cruel and unemotional the Borg were when they captured humans and assimilated them. This included disturbing images of machine parts replacing body parts. This film wasn’t afraid to take chances and go dark because Star Trek is so versatile that it can cover different types of stories and themes.
Unlike the last film, this one had a true cinematic feel with excellent and intricate production design and cinematography. The Enterprise-E interiors looks more updated, yet less refined than the more elegant Enterprise-D. Simultaneously, the claustrophobic and steamily creepy Borg sets came back with a vengeance as parts of the ship looked alien after conversion. The ship itself is a nice, sleek design that looks formidable and was well shot, giving us ample views of the new Enterprise.
Director and co-star Jonathan Frakes turned out to have been an inspired choice as a director. Frakes understands the characters and the background, knowing what works and doesn’t work in the framework of a Star Trek story. Everything else works in Star Trek: First Contact, special effects, makeup, costumes, you name it. The people behind the scenes were on top form, including composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose music was rich and nuanced as always. His famous Star Trek theme returned, which by now is associated with TNG.
The acting and characters were spot on. Data behaved more like his old self and not like a buffoon. Through him Star Trek unexpectedly explored sexuality and what it means to be human as he felt conflicted about his allegiance and his desires. While other characters weren’t central to the plot like Picard and Data they were well rounded and had some excellent scenes, particularly Worf when he’s called a coward by Picard. Even characters like Deanna had more substantive moments than in the last film. This time, they seemed more like the characters fans remembered in TNG. Look for smile-inducing cameos and nods to other Star Trek incarnations. Screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga deserve credit for delivering a sound and impressive script.
Patrick Stewart performed a wide acting range during his character’s confrontation with Lily, one of the film’s best and most dramatic scenes. It was startling to behold because Picard is usually a calm, collected intellectual type. But he comes off as an unreasonably bitter and intense man who is clearly suffering from PTSD. His rage just escalates more and more as Lily faces up to him and appropriately compares him to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Eventually, he realizes he is losing his soul and judgment over his obsession. This continued the Star Trek honored tradition of referencing classical literature and using allegories.
The new characters truly stood out, even peripheral ones like Hawk. Cochrane is well played by Cromwell; he masterfully played a man who can’t deal with the fact that his actions will deeply impact humanity, which is why he’d rather run off and disappear. Still by the end, while still a ruffian, Cochrane is more humbled and able to bear the responsibility of what awaits him as he makes first contact with an alien race. Woodard’s Lily represents us as she is thrust into an encounter with the future. She is the sole voice of reason who is able to stand up to Picard and get through to him. Woodard more than held her own in that climatic scene with Stewart.
The Borg Queen is the most prominent female villain in the Star Trek films. As such, she projects a different kind of menace. She’s cloy, oddly seductive despite her hideous appearance, and venomous. The Queen as portrayed by Krige only wants to bring order out of chaos and achieve a type of universal perfection. Yet she is intrigued by Picard and Data’s independent nature. She wants them to join her willingly to achieve total victory.
Is this film perfect? No, it has some slight issues. Some may argue that it’s a rip-off of sci-fi horror films like Aliens, but it accomplished what it set out to do. Occasionally, the pacing is a bit off and some humor feels forced. It also would’ve been nice if more was revealed about life in the late 21st century. But those are just minor complaints.
Star Trek: First Contact was an exciting and suspenseful adventure that proved that the characters (and cast) from Star Trek: The Next Generation could deliver a great Star Trek film. Not only is it the best film to feature the characters from TNG, but one of the best Star Trek films.